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Losing local newspapers leaves many communities in the dark

In many places, local journalism is dying in plain sight. And it's having serious damaging effects on the American communities that have lost their newspapers.

Local papers are closing or being consolidated at an astounding rate, often leaving behind what researchers label as news deserts -- towns and even entire counties that have no consistent local media coverage.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, more than 1,400 towns and cities in the U.S. have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. Many of those are in rural and lower-income areas, often with an aging population.

The loss of a reliable local news source has many consequences for the community. One of them is the inability to watchdog the actions of government agencies and elected officials.

Consider Waynesville, Missouri, where Darrell Todd Maurina is the only local reporter on the scene at Pulaski County courthouse to tell residents what their commissioners are up to. He's the only one who'll report on their deliberations about how to satisfy the Federal Emergency Management Agency so it will pay to repair a road inundated during a 2013 flood.

Maurina, who posts his work to Facebook, represents the local press -- in its entirety.

A town's daily diary

The reasons for the newspapers' closures vary. But the result is that many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died.

Sunshine Week Fading Light
A microfilm copy of the Daily Guide at the library in Waynesville, Missouri. The newspaper shut down in September 2018. Orlin Wagner / AP

The Daily Guide, which traces to 1962, served the twin towns of Waynesville and St. Robert near the Army's sprawling Fort Leonard Wood. It was a family-owned paper into the 1980s before it was sold to a series of corporate owners that culminated with GateHouse Media Inc., the nation's largest newspaper company.

As recently as 2010, the Daily Guide had four full-time news people, along with a page designer and three ad salespeople.

But people left and weren't replaced. Last spring, the Daily Guide was cut from five to three days a week. In June, the last newsroom staffer, editor Natalie Sanders, quit -- she was burned out, she said. The last edition was published three months later, on Sept. 7.

"It felt like an old friend died," Sanders said. "I sat and I cried, I really did."

Which came first?

The death of the Daily Guide raises questions not easily answered, the same ones asked at newspapers big and small across the country.

Did GateHouse stop investing because people were less interested in reading the paper? Or did people lose interest because the lack of investment made it a less satisfying read?

GateHouse said the Daily Guide, like many smaller newspapers across the country, was hurt by a dwindling advertising market among national retailers. It faces the same financial pressures as virtually every other newspaper company: Circulation in the U.S. has declined every year for three decades, while advertising revenue across the industry has nosedived since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

The challenges are especially difficult in smaller communities.

"They're getting eaten away at every level," said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst at Harvard's Nieman Lab.

"Losing a newspaper," said Keith Pritchard, 63, chairman of the board at the Security Bank of Pulaski County and a lifelong resident, "is like losing the heartbeat of a town."

"I miss the newspaper, the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee and a bagel or a doughnut ... and find out what's going on in the community," said Bill Slabaugh, a retiree. Now he talks to friends and "candidly, for the most part, I'm ignorant."

News no longer spreads

Beyond the emotions are practical concerns about the loss of an information source.

Like many communities, Waynesville is struggling with a drug problem. The four murders last year were the most in memory, and all were drug-related.

Without a newspaper's reporting, Waynesville Police Chief Dan Cordova said many in the community are unaware of the extent of the problem. Social media is a resource, but Cordova is concerned about not reaching everyone.

So Waynesville is left with local radio and Maurina's Facebook site. Maurina says for journalism to survive, reporters need to get back to the basics of being at every event and "telling everyone what the sirens were about last night."

An investigation gets results

The Fresno Bee represents another story about local journalism and its impact on the community it serves. One of the last investigations Jim Boren oversaw before he retired as the paper's executive editor was a four-month examination of substandard housing in the city at the heart of California's Central Valley.

The multimedia project revealed the living conditions imposed on many of the city's low-income renters, many of them immigrants: apartments filled with mold, mice and cockroaches, to name some of the more glaring problems. Local housing advocates compared it to the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The investigation got immediate results.

"We made people's lives better. We changed laws," said Boren, who retired in 2017 and is now director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State University.

Among other things, the city responded by requiring property owners to make repairs when it found violations, rather than just levy fines.

"Those are the kinds of things that journalists do," Boren said.

Not all hope is lost

And it's the kind of journalism -- holding local government officials accountable for problems that affect the lives of real people -- that is in danger of being lost in many communities around the country.

This isn't a hopeless story.

Dotted across the country are exceptions to the brutal new rule, newspapers that are surviving with creative business plans. In North Carolina's Moore County, owners support the 100-year-old Pilot with revenue raised by side businesses — lifestyle magazines, electronic newsletters, telephone directories, a video production company and a bookstore.

Philanthropy is supporting other efforts to fill gaps created by journalism's business struggles. Report for America, which sees itself as a Peace Corps for journalists, has sent young reporters into communities in Mississippi, Texas and elsewhere. It has relationships with newsrooms across the country, including The Associated Press. The American Journalism Project is raising money to fund local news, and recently announced $42 million in pledges.

What this effort means for Waynesville, and many small towns like it, remains to be seen.

It briefly had an alternative after the Daily Guide folded. A local businessman, Louie Keen, bankrolled a newspaper, the Uranus Examiner, that was delivered for free. It folded after five issues.

"Equal opportunity agitator"

So Waynesville and St. Robert are left with Darrell Todd Maurina's Facebook site, which he calls the Pulaski County Daily News.

Maurina's efforts have some support, even from the city councilman who said he once threatened to throw Maurina out a window over a disagreement about a story.

"He's an equal opportunity agitator," said Ed Conley, another council member. "He tries to be fair, and to be honest about it, he does a good job, but he's just one person and he's limited by social media."